Common Milkweed

(This column was first published in the November 8, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    With the last autumn leaves swirling in cold northern winds and with sleet and snow increasingly in the forecast, this will seem to many readers an odd time of year for me to write about milkweed. But this is when I most enjoy this remarkable plant.

    We are, of course, long past the time when common milkweed displayed its pinkish, near-spherical flower clusters, their sweet smell attracting monarch butterflies, skippers, milkweed bugs, milkweed beetles and occasionally even ruby-throated hummingbirds. Now the wildflower has shed most of its leaves, leaving behind only opposite leaf scars, and all that remains is an erect, two to four foot, gray-brown stem topped with gray pods.

    As I write this, I recall my first experience with those wonderful pods. I could not have been more than four or five years old when my mother walked with me out past the gardens behind our home into an open field. She wanted to show me something, she said. We soon came upon a small cluster of milkweed stems, each of them bearing several pods a little larger than an adult's thumb.

    "Watch," my mother said. She broke off one of the pods, split it down its single seam and held it open. From it burst an ever-expanding cloud of white that sailed off downwind. I was captivated and spent the next half hour, squealing with delight, repeating my mother's magic until all the seeds in that patch had been set free.

    I wonder now how my mother knew about milkweed because she spent her own childhood in Sweden. Born in Chicago, her mother died when she was three and her father had to send her to his homeland to be brought up there by relatives. She finally rejoined her family in America as a teenager.

    It may be, however, that she did find this native American plant in Scandinavia. The Swedish systematist Linnaeus knew of it -- in fact, he misnamed it. He called common milkweed Asclepias syriaca. The genus name honored the ancient Greek physician, quite reasonable because milkweed has a wide range of medicinal uses. But the species name he assigned represents Syria and suggests that origin for it. Linnaeus was wrong as common milkweed was only introduced to Mediterranean countries from America. (Steve Eaton has pointed out that our native turkey derived its name from a similar misjudgment about its origin.)

    Most farmers do not like milkweed because this perennial invades their agricultural or nursery crops, especially those grown under no-till or reduced-till regimens. Those airborne silky white "feathers" also clog air intakes of farm equipment. But milkweed is now being grown in the mid-west as a cash crop. Natural Fibers of Ogallala, Nebraska harvests the fluff and combines it with cotton to stuff pillows and make felt. In this they copy pioneer families who used it for mattresses and quilts as well.

    It has also been discovered recently by Agricultural Research Service scientists that the seeds may be separated from the silk to provide a product containing poisonous compounds called cardenolides that kill the nematodes that attack potatoes, corn, tomatoes, alfalfa and other crops. This is a timely discovery because the methyl bromide that is now used to control those nematodes is a potent ozone depletion agent and will be banned by 2002.

    But those technological applications take nothing away from the experience of watching those puffs of white flying in the wind. I continue to open a few of those pods each year at this time but now the experience has changed. Each time I do so, childhood memories bring tears to my eyes.-- Gerry Rising